God is not king. God is not a master, and we are not in bondage to God. This was the consensus reached by Fall 2016 session of the Seminar on God and the Human Future with the guidance of guest theologians J. Kameron Carter and Keri Day. A formal report on the session will appear in a future issue of The Fourth R magazine.

The Vote

Given the problematic associations with property, possessiory closure, and mastery, the concept of sovereignty should no longer be used in reference to contemporary conceptions of God.

What It Means

Both the scholars and the public audience reached a consensus that the idea of God as sovereign is no longer tenable, but on what grounds? And was this a vote against “the Master” an act of hubris, just another attempt to wander like Zarathustra with a lantern in daylight, intoning in new words the death of God?

A sovereign God is a God that, by God’s very nature, condones slavery and all forms of bondage. The rhetoric of colonization, subjugation, and human trafficking provides ample evidence of the usefulness of a sovereign God to any society, community, or family that asserts the right of one group of people to exploit another. Such language (literally) ties to the sacred to property and “propriety”—being “well behaved” and in one’s “proper place”.

A sovereign God is a God tempted to act for power and vengeance. Where God is adopted as an alternative master or king against a human despot, even an oppressed community is tempted to seek a simple reversal of power: “Now look who holds the whip!” This eye for an eye logic leaves us all blind, and none the better for it. In forging new language for God—as many slaves and oppressed people have done!—the allure of this metaphor should be interrogated.

Abject slavery is not the only, or even the best, way to honor an important source of wonder, guidance, regeneration, and authority. The God Seminar was not trying to suggest that God, however defined, may hold zero authority over human lives. Authority comes in many forms and can be honored in many forms. Total humiliation need not be one of them! This conversation had an ecological component to it, in that stripping land of life and destroying its ability to sustain whole systems of not only human but other living beings as well, is itself a form of slavery and subjugation. Think of a spectrum of attitudes toward whatever is ultimate, with slavery on the extreme end, and it is soon clear that other metaphors than “master-slave” hold more promise even for a world that is not 100 percent egalitarian.

Alternatives to the God-King

It should be clear from these brief notes that the moral problems, rather than formal logical problems, of the sovereign God metaphor dominated Seminar discussions. As for prospective workable metaphors for God, this session of the Seminar noted several that have been birthed by resistance movements informed by the problem of racism:

  • God as the wild place, the fugitive space, the space of breaches and breaks and exile
  • Theology redefined as para-theology, that is, work “to one side, beside, and beyond,” and the Seminar’s work as “para-institutional,” asking which categories of Western theologies need to be released
  • Religious practice as a promiscuous mixing of communities that normally don’t come together, as calling into question both hyper-local brutality and hyper-imperial brutality
  • Appreciation for the reality that whiteness came to be associated with God in the sense of being the ruling collective that is “proper,” while blackness has been a “fecal” poetics of dealing with the “shit,” the mess, the excess. The white body gets its nutrients by brutalizing the rest (as cultural critic bell hooks has said, “they’re eating us”). How can this be disrupted? In working with communities that identify as white, slowdown metaphors that encourage an ethic of care might help, as long as it doesn’t turn into a starve-and-binge pattern instead.

The Spring 2017 session of the Seminar on God and the Human Future turns to another class of metaphors, meaning and the cosmos, with the guidance of Catherine Keller, author of Cloud of the Impossible.

Thank you for reading this report on the Westar Institute Fall 2016 national meeting, which took place in San Antonio, Texas. To see all meeting-related reports, visit the Fall 2016 program page.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

4 replies
  1. Rev. Gregory Lowrey says:

    How about God as the creative and motive force behind all things that is as scripture says, incomprehensible to man – who or whatever it is likely completely uninterested in any of the conclusions you report on. All the racism connections have been used by all races to control their own as well as others and your clean vs poo suggestions are just meaningless, modern, ignorant silliness.
    Man can comprehend God just like the clock comprehends the clocksmith – zero. If God is a consious entity it likely has no consideration for man at all. We ascribe natural laws (nature) to God’s favor, but we should instead believe the scripture that God (whatever that is) is no respecter to persons. Our anthropomorphising and attributing other human qualities of thought and behavior to the “creator” is just human rubbish, which is more likely what kind of relationship humans would have to a God that considered them at all. But we were all created, the whole ascribing purpose and considering race and all is just ignorant human crap. I’m disappointed that this is what you had to report from a conference that could have considered god simply as a creative natural force that deserves respect, but not as a force that contemplates or seeks to control creation, especially humanity.

    • Cassandra says:

      Rev. Lowrey, thanks very much for these comments. I think it’s important to call attention, in light of your concerns, to the issue of human beings needing to somehow talk about the incomprehensible using human language, which cannot help but be imprecise. That’s why so much of this is framed in terms of “metaphors” for God. The assumption there is that all our metaphors are incomplete, and in fact, they will need to adapt to changes in time and situation. Even the notion of a “creative or motive force” is a metaphor that conveys a possible way to talk about the incomprehensible. The Fall 2016 session is, as you probably already know, part of a much larger project, so each session has to focus on only one image or collection of images at a time. You might find it encouraging to hear that the next phase of the Seminar engages with “cosmos” as a metaphor, so it will almost certainly touch upon the themes you’re talking about.

  2. Gene Stecher says:

    My perspective:

    Since humanity is the only conscience of the universe of which we are aware, any definition of a worthy deity must include the impulse for creative loving potential maximizing relationships. Is that to be found any more powerfully than in the life and teachings of Jesus???

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    • Cassandra says:

      Thanks, Gene – Your definition of a “worthy deity” to me both echoes the moral concerns behind the God Seminar discussions and points toward some of the alternative metaphors that could be considered.

      I think I’m still wondering if this kind of conversation, working from a moral platform, requires any sort of justification of where we are getting our moral standards. That’s a fairly basic problem of the field of ethics. If we’re employing morality to critique an attempt to describe deity, it certainly seems clear we’re not getting our authority for moral decision making from that deity!

Comments are closed.